Breaking Writer’s Block

By Joyce Zonana

          How to overcome writer’s block?  Apportion yourself some dedicated time and space.  Set up your typewriter (or computer or notepad).  Shut the door.  Write.  Keep writing.  Write until you cannot stop.  Then write some more.  Keep writing.  And then start sending your writing to readers, as many people as possible.  Collect readers.  Collect more.  Keep writing.  Write more.  It’s really that simple.  And it helps, it really helps, to have a deadline and a sense of urgency, either internal or external:  this must be done—to pay the bills, to win a bet, to settle a score, to fulfill a dream, to maintain your sanity, or dignity, or self-respect.  Write because you have to.  No one else can.


            For nearly ten years, I wrote almost everyday, either in a journal or in the collection of essays I lugged around with me wherever I went – “my manuscript,” the initially inchoate mass of memories and dreams that ultimately became the memoir I published in 2008, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile’s Journey (NY: The Feminist Press).  I had started the book in 1997 at a women’s writing retreat, Norcroft, a wonderful place in the Minnesota woods that had offered me the proverbial “room of one’s own” in which to create.  I had applied almost on a whim, knowing that I wanted to write a book somehow drawn from my own life, but having no idea how to begin or even exactly what to write about.  “Dedicate yourself to it,” I thought, and what better way to dedicate myself than to go alone to a place where my only responsibility for an entire month would be to write.
            Each of the four women at the retreat had a comfortable room (handmade quilt, soft lighting, beautiful view) in the lovely lakeside house, along with a small eight-foot by eight-foot shed in the surrounding woods.  Each shed was furnished with a wide shelf-like desk the length of one wall, a lamp, a rocking chair, a dictionary, and a thesaurus.  A tiny window looked out on the barely budding trees (it was May, still quite cold in those north woods); the silence and the solitude were complete.  The basic rule of the retreat was simple:  we had to maintain silence until 4 p.m.
            I remember my first day; after a simple breakfast, I walked out to my shed, set up my typewriter (!), put some pads of paper on the desk, arranged my pens and pencils.  And then I just sat there.  How to begin?  What to write?  Surely someone must have made a mistake in selecting me for this residency.  I was a fraud, empty.  What could I possibly write?  I took out the proposal I had written for my application.  Something about the long-term friendship of four Jewish women from New York.  Okay.  I would make the effort.
            For two days I labored away, getting to my shed by 9 a.m. and staying there at least until 4 p.m.  I changed the names of all the characters, including my own.  I stuck close to real incidents but allowed myself to invent new beginnings and endings.  Everything felt labored and false.  Nothing seemed real or alive.  But I knew I had to keep going, if only to justify my existence at this amazing place. I wrote longhand, painstakingly, without any passion. 
            And then on the third or fourth day, something suddenly shifted.  I re-read what I had written and saw that my real impulse, my deep desire, was to tell the truth about myself.  I had grown up a shy and isolated child, someone who rarely shared anything with anyone.  Now, as an adult, I wanted my story to be known.  I wanted to tell people exactly how I experienced the world.  Changing names and inventing scenes made no sense; it was the truth that wanted to emerge, and it was the truth I would have to tell, no matter how frightening that seemed.  I decided I had to write memoir.  And I decided it had to be grounded in my current reality. 
           “My lover sleeps in a bed she inherited from her maternal grandmother,” I wrote:  the first (though later much revised) sentence of what would become the first chapter, “Heirloom,” of my book, a chapter that explores my relationship to things: the things inherited or not from our ancestors. 
           That sentence opened the door, and I walked through it into an experience of authentic writing.  I still didn’t know where I was going or what I would find there, but I knew exactly where I was at that moment and exactly what I wanted to do: to explore and record as clearly as possible my actual feelings about concrete places and things and people.  I began to write, freely and fully, completing in the next three days a first draft of that chapter and beginning, over the next few weeks, to outline the shape of several more.